Few, if anyone, think a school shooting could happen in their neighborhood. That is until tragedy strikes.
Some parents at P.S. 81 Robert J. Christen School don’t want to wait to find out, and are taking steps they believe could make the 5550 Riverdale Ave., campus more secure against any attacker, especially an active shooter.
Members of a school parent association security committee crafted a petition several months ago seeking support for a series of security enhancements to the 94-year-old building. It’s earned the signatures of about a third of P.S. 81’s families to this point, according to safety committee member Dora Gutierrez.
“School is a second home for a lot of these kids,” she said. “They’re there five days a week. And for the kids who are in after-school care, they’re at school more than they’re at home. They deserve to be feel safe and to actually be safe.”
News of mass shootings has become disturbingly frequent. According to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security, there already have been 32 incidents in which a gun was brandished or fired, or a bullet has hit a K-12 school in 2019. Last year’s total of 97 such incidents marked a 48-year high.
The fear of school shootings has worried parents for years, but the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last year hit uncomfortably close to home for some. It was the deadliest school shooting in the nation’s history. After being expelled, a student allegedly returned to campus with a semiautomatic rifle, killing 17 while seriously injuring 17 others.
Parents nationwide watched in horror as details about the shooter’s senseless killing spree came to light, including the fact that an FBI complaint about the alleged shooter’s verbal threats went unheeded.
All of that spurred a few P.S. 81 parents into action.
“We all just got to the point of such worry and concern that we decided that, as you have heard the Parkland survivors say over and over again, enough is enough,” Gutierrez said. “We don’t want to wait for a Parkland to happen in our neighborhood. We want to be proactive. We want to be preventative. We want to do everything we can to make the school more secure and safe for our kids.”
School buildings, especially in New York City, tend to be old. Schools like P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil were built in the 1950s, while others — like DeWitt Clinton High School and P.S. 81 — are products of the Roaring ‘20s. They were built in times when administrators and students didn’t even consider mass shooters.
But now as such events become more commonplace, concerned parents of nearly every state have lobbied elected officials for funds to update security measures, Gutierrez said.
Rather than waiting for the state or city to take action, she added, the P.S. 81 parent association partnered with the school’s safety officers to develop an upgrade plan they believe will make the school more secure.
That would mean video cameras outside each exterior door with a live feed to the school security officer’s desk. Windows replaced with bulletproof glass. And new locks installed on interior classroom doors so teachers and administrators can lock down the school faster in case of an emergency.
But such safety modifications aren’t cheap, and putting them in place will require outside help.
“The plan involves adding infrastructure,” Gutierrez said. “And because it’s infrastructure, we can’t just do it with a PA fundraiser.”
That’s why the parents have taken the issue to Councilman Andrew Cohen, Community Board 8 members, the city’s education department and other agencies. So far, the plan has been met with a positive reception overall, Gutierrez said, especially among parents.
“We also have the support of the principal,” she said of principal Anne Kirrane. “Even though this a movement that’s coming from us, the parents, she’s supportive of the plan all the way.”
A few smart modifications can go a long way toward making a school safer against an active shooter, according to a study by Everytown for Gun Safety, a New York City-based group founded by former mayor Michael Bloomberg. It conducted a detailed analysis of several school shootings, noting that unlocked doors and unmanned security desks made it easier for the respective gunmen to get inside unnoticed.
“In both Sandy Hook and Parkland, teachers had to step outside of their classrooms while the shooting was underway in order to lock their doors,” according to the study. “This exposed the educators and students to danger. Doors that were left unlocked were unsecured and vulnerable. That is why school safety experts … agree that schools should make sure that classroom doors lock from the inside as well as the outside. Interior door locks can mean the difference between life and death in an active shooter situation.”
Schools are safe, however, according to education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot. Cameras and door alarms were installed in school buildings as part of a safety strategy her department developed with the New York Police Department.
“School staff is trained annually in emergency response protocols,” Barbot said, “and every school has an individualized safety plan.”
At the beginning of every academic year, each school writes a safety plan that’s unique to its building and classroom layout. School administrators are required to conduct four lockdown drills and eight evacuation drills throughout the year.
Administrators also can call on the NYPD to increase monitoring, assign more safety officers, or provide more training through the borough’s safety director, Barbot added.
The education department also offers grants for additional video cameras. These systems allow schools to view live and archived video from their computers, as well as authorized officials from central offices.
But it’s not quite enough for parents at P.S. 81.
“The parents at P.S. 81 are saying the overall threat is already at an unacceptable level,” Gutierrez said. “We don’t want to wait for tragedy to strike.”